For most, Barcelona’s immigrant detention center is a difficult place to find. Tucked away in the Zona Franca logistics and industrial area, just beyond the Montjuïc Cemetery, it is shrouded in an alien stillness. It may be the quietest place in the city on a Saturday afternoon, but it is not a contemplative quiet. It is a no-one-can-hear-you-scream quiet.
The area is often described as a perfect example of what anthropologist Marc Augé calls a non-place: neither relational nor historical, nor concerned with identity. Yet this opaque institution is situated in the economic motor of the city, next to the port, the airport, the public transportation company, the wholesale market that provides most of the city’s produce and the printing plant for Spain’s most widely read newspaper. The detention center is a void in the heart of a sovereign body.
Alik Manukyan died in this void. On the morning of December 3, 2013, officers found the 32-year-old Armenian dead in his isolation cell, hanged using his own shoelaces. Police claimed that Manukyan was a “violent” and “conflictive” person who caused trouble with his cellmates. This account of his alleged suicide was contradicted, however, by three detainees. They claimed Alik had had a confrontation with some officers, who then entered the cell, assaulted him and forced him into isolation. They heard Alik scream and wail all through the night. Two of these witnesses were deported before the case made it to court. An “undetectable technical error” prevented the judge from viewing any surveillance footage.
The void extends beyond the detention center. In 2013, nearly a decade after moving to Spain, a young Senegalese man named #Alpha_Pam died of tuberculosis. When he went to a hospital for treatment, Pam was denied medical attention because his papers were not in order. His case was a clear example of the apartheid logic underlying a 2012 decree by Mariano Rajoy’s right-wing government, which excluded undocumented people from Spain’s once-universal public health care system. As a result, the country’s hospitals went from being places of universal care to spaces of systematic neglect. The science of healing, warped by nationalist politics.
Not that science had not played a role in perpetuating the void before. In 2007, during the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, #Osamuyi_Aikpitanyi died during a deportation flight after being gagged and restrained by police escorts. The medical experts who investigated Aikpitanyi’s death concluded that the Nigerian man had died due to a series of factors they called “a vicious spiral”. There was an increase in catecholamine, a neurotransmitter related to stress, fear, panic and flight instincts. This was compounded by a lack of oxygen due to the flight altitude and, possibly, the gag. Ultimately, these experts could not determine what percentage of the death had been directly caused by the gag, and the police were fined 600 euros for the non-criminal offense of “light negligence”.
The Romans had a term for lives like these, lives that vanish in the void. That term was #homo_sacer, the “sacred man”, who one could kill without being found guilty of murder. An obscure figure from archaic law revived by the philosopher #Giorgio_Agamben, it was used to incorporate human life, stripped of personhood, into the juridical order. Around this figure, a state of exception was produced, in which power could be exercised in its crudest form, opaque and unaccountable. For Agamben, this is the unspoken ground upon which modern sovereignty stands. Perhaps the best example of it is the mass grave that the Mediterranean has become.
Its name suggests that the Mediterranean was once the world’s center. Today it is its deadliest divide. According to the International Organization for Migration, over 9,000 people died trying to cross the sea between January 1, 2014 and July 5, 2018. A conservative estimate, perhaps. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that the number of people found dead or missing during this period is closer to 17,000.
Concern for the situation peaks when spectacular images make the horror unavoidable. A crisis mentality takes over, and politicians make sweeping gestures with a solemn sense of urgency. One such gesture was made after nearly 400 people died en route to Lampedusa in October 2013. The Italian government responded by launching Operation #Mare_Nostrum, a search-and-rescue program led by the country’s navy and coast guard. It cost €11 million per month, deploying 34 warships and about 900 sailors per working day. Over 150,000 people were rescued by the operation in one year.
Despite its cost, Mare Nostrum was initially supported by much of the Italian public. It was less popular, however, with other European member states, who accused the mission of encouraging “illegal” migration by making it less deadly. Within a year, Europe’s refusal to share the responsibility had produced a substantial degree of discontent in Italy. In October 2014, Mare Nostrum was scrapped and replaced by #Triton, an operation led by the European border agency #Frontex.
With a third of Mare Nostrum’s budget, Triton was oriented not towards protecting lives but towards surveillance and border control. As a result, the deadliest incidents in the region’s history occurred less than half a year into the operation. Between April 13 and April 19, 2015, over one thousand people drowned in the waters abandoned by European search and rescue efforts. Once again, the images produced a public outcry. Once again, European leaders shed crocodile tears for the dead.
Instead of strengthening search and rescue efforts, the EU increased Frontex’s budget and complemented Triton with #Operation_Sophia, a military effort to disrupt the networks of so-called “smugglers”. #Eugenio_Cusumano, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Leiden, has written extensively on the consequences of this approach, which he describes as “organized hypocrisy”. In an article for the Cambridge Review of International Affairs (▻https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0010836718780175), Cusumano shows how the shortage of search and rescue assets caused by the termination of Mare Nostrum led non-governmental organizations to become the main source of these activities off the Libyan shore. Between 2014 and 2017, NGOs aided over 100,000 people.
Their efforts have been admirable. Yet the precariousness of their resources and their dependence on private donors mean that NGOs have neither the power nor the capacity to provide aid on the scale required to prevent thousands of deaths at the border. To make matters worse, for the last several months governments have been targeting NGOs and individual activists as smugglers or human traffickers, criminalizing their solidarity. It is hardly surprising, then, that the border has become even deadlier in recent years. According to the UN Refugee Agency, although the number of attempted crossings has fallen over 80 percent from its peak in 2015, the percentage of people who have died or vanished has quadrupled.
It is not my intention, with the litany of deaths described here, to simply name some of the people killed by Europe’s border regime. What I hope to have done instead is show the scale of the void at its heart and give a sense of its ruthlessness and verticality. There is a tendency to refer to this void as a gap, as a space beyond the reach of European institutions, the European gaze or European epistemologies. If this were true, the void could be filled by simply extending Europe’s reach, by producing new concepts, mapping new terrains, building new institutions.
But, in fact, Europe has been treating the void as a site of production all along. As political theorist #Sandro_Mezzadra writes, the border is the method through which the sovereign machine of governmentality was built. Its construction must be sabotaged, subverted and disrupted at every level.
A Crisis of Solidarity
When the ultranationalist Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini refused to allow the MV #Aquarius to dock in June 2018, he was applauded by an alarmingly large number of Italians. Many blamed his racism and that of the Italians for putting over 600 lives at risk, including those of 123 unaccompanied minors, eleven young children and seven pregnant women.
Certainly, the willingness to make a political point by sacrificing hundreds of migrant lives confirms that racism. But another part of what made Salvini’s gesture so horrifying was that, presumably, many of those who had once celebrated increasing search and rescue efforts now supported the opposite. Meanwhile, many of the same European politicians who had refused to share Italy’s responsibilities five years earlier were now expressing moral outrage over Salvini’s lack of solidarity.
Once again, the crisis mode of European border politics was activated. Once again, European politicians and media talked about a “migrant crisis”, about “flows” of people causing unprecedented “pressure” on the southern border. But attempted crossings were at their lowest level in years, a fact that led many migration scholars to claim this was not a “migrant crisis”, but a crisis of solidarity. In this sense, Italy’s shift reflects the nature of the problem. By leaving it up to individual member states, the EU has made responding to the deaths at the border a matter of national conviction. When international solidarity is absent, national self-interest takes over.
Fortunately, Spain’s freshly sworn-in Socialist Party government granted the Aquarius permission to dock in the Port of #Valencia. This happened only after Mayor Ada Colau of Barcelona, a self-declared “City of Refuge”, pressured Spanish President Pedro Sánchez by publicly offering to receive the ship at the Port of Barcelona. Party politics being as they are, Sánchez authorized a port where his party’s relationship with the governing left-wing platform was less conflictive than in Barcelona.
The media celebrated Sánchez’s authorization as an example of moral virtue. Yet it would not have happened if solidarity with refugees had not been considered politically profitable by institutional actors. In Spain’s highly fractured political arena, younger left-wing parties and the Catalan independence movement are constantly pressuring a weakened Socialist Party to prove their progressive credentials. Meanwhile, tireless mobilization by social movements has made welcoming refugees a matter of common sense and basic human decency.
The best known example of this mobilization was the massive protest that took place in February 2017, when 150,000 people took to the streets of Barcelona to demand that Mariano Rajoy’s government take in more refugees and migrants. It is likely because of actions like these that, according to the June 2018 Eurobarometer, over 80 percent of people in Spain believe the country should help those fleeing disaster.
Yet even where the situation might be more favorable to bottom-up pressure, those in power will not only limit the degree to which demands are met, but actively distort those demands. The February 2017 protest is a good example. Though it also called for the abolition of detention centers, racial profiling and Spain’s racist immigration law, the march is best remembered for the single demand of welcoming refugees.
The adoption of this demand by the Socialist Party was predictably cynical. After authorizing the Aquarius, President Sánchez used his momentarily boosted credibility to present, alongside Emmanuel Macron, a “progressive” European alternative to Salvini’s closed border. It involved creating detention centers all over the continent, with the excuse of determining people’s documentation status. Gears turn in the sovereign machine of governmentality. The void expands.
Today the border is a sprawling, parasitic entity linking governments, private companies and supranational institutions. It is not enough for NGOs to rescue refugees, when their efforts can be turned into spot-mopping for the state. It is not enough for social movements to pressure national governments to change their policies, when individual demands can be distorted to mean anything. It is not enough for cities to declare themselves places of refuge, when they can be compelled to enforce racist laws. It is not enough for political parties to take power, when they can be conditioned by private interests, the media and public opinion polls.
To overcome these limitations, we must understand borders as highly vertical transnational constructions. Dismantling those constructions will require organization, confrontation, direct action, sabotage and, above all, that borderless praxis of mutual aid and solidarity known as internationalism. If we truly hope to abolish the border, we must start fires in the void.